The Interweaving of Plot, Character, and Setting

This weekend I have the pleasure of participating in the A Writer’s Day Camp at Taltree Arboretum & Gardens (sponsored by the Indiana Writers’ Consortium). My topic will be on worldbuilding so I’ve been thinking about that all week. The problem is, it is hard to just talk about only setting, character, dialogue or plot as if they were all separate things. In fact, it feels impossible to discuss one without widely swinging into all the others. After all, each of these factors overlay and intertwine like snakes writhing in a hole. From the view of the reader, pulling just one factor out to see should be nearly impossible without impacting the others. And that is the way great writing should be.

Intertwined snakes

This Celtic symbol could be plot and setting, character and setting or other equally knotted up writing ideas.

A writer can’t really talk about character development without referring to the setting unless the character is dropped into a world completely different from where he or she lives. The reason is simple. Our environment shapes who we are and what we think about. If you doubt this, just compare to a person from a rural or small-town background to an urban citizen. Let’s say a person from a town in the Poconos versus New York city. Yes, they might be from the same state, are both East Coast residents, but they will have subtly different ideas. Throw in a cross-country comparison, like a Northerner versus a Southerner and the differences grow enormously. When I moved from the Coastal Bend region of Texas to Indiana, I was awestruck over the differences in societies and people. For one thing, Texans love their fences while Northwest Indiana folks seem to hate them.

A good example of regionalism affecting character and plot can be found in Sofie Littlefield’s Bad Day for Sorry. The accent and attitude of the main character is so southern that it makes you think of catfish and cornbread. Her Stella Hardesty character reeks of southern setting every time she opens her mouth. Charlaine Harris’ book (and TV show) Midnight, Texas series was chosen specifically because of its isolation and somewhat alien feel of the Texas desert. The sparsely settled setting makes it easy to have bodies disappear. In addition, people living in a tiny town form a protective cluster. They all know and look out for each other. This isolation helps mold the very odd characters found there.

Sometimes to start figuring out a story, all you need to do is ask questions about a character. Where did they come from? Where do they live now? What job do they do and how does that mold their character? Exploring these questions can lead to a story.

For example, I wrote a book about a ghost-talker that was harassed by spirits constantly until she finally made it her mission to put them to rest. Specter of a Chance came from one simple idea, a name. I thought of Magdalene Knowles (“Layne please. Never Maggie!”) Her name seemed so cool so I knew she had to be someone strong with an interesting life. I gave her ghost talking ability and put her in Northwest Indiana. If the spirits bugged her all of the time, people would think she is crazy talking to air. So she couldn’t hold a normal job. What could she do to earn money to support herself? What would be her goals in life and who would be her best friend?

Then I started thinking about worldbuilding. Why NWI? What opportunities would it give her? What were the benefits and problems of living in an area that had cities closely clustered together but each firmly independent? How would the seasons and weather affect her spectral companions? What limits existed for ghosts? Eventually a plot fell out of those musings.

So it is fine to focus on setting or character or plot separately to start with. However, great writers recognize that these factors all blend together and affect each other. They must in order to make up all the beautiful details and twists that make a really fine plot. After all, spy novels aren’t that interesting if they are located in small town South Dakota, and western cowboys don’t really belong in Europe unless you are going for the culture clash. In that case, those ideas could actually make really interesting books.

Happy writing!

Introspection on The Hateful Eight

One of the things that I teach my English composition class is that someone wrote pretty much everything in the media, including all movies, advertisements, and newscasts. That’s why great writing is so important. This is certainly true for movies. Although the medium is moving pictures, we can still learn so many lessons about plot, audience, character development, and more by watching truly great and sometimes really horrible films.

For instance, let’s examine The Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino. It is an amazing story to see once but, like many of his films, you have to enter the theater with an iron stomach and a numbing reaction to vulgarity and racial slurs, however historically accurate. I’m not saying I’m a Tarantino fan, although I’ve seen most of his movies. True fandom for me is whether I buy the Blu-ray or not, and I don’t own any of his collection. I appreciate the man’s artistry in cinematography but am often put off by the gore and profane (in multiple ways) nature of his films.

The Hateful Eight was just what the title implies. Eight people huddle together in a cabin in the middle of a snowstorm. Several of them had post-Civil War axes to grind, usually in the other fellow’s head, and some simply wanted to kill people. The actors, especially Samuel Jackson, were fabulously horrible and the plot proved as entertaining as gladiatorial combat. You knew someone was going to die. You were just placing your bets on who.

What I took away from the film was a realization that the characters were embodied emotions, cunningly pitted against each other. Jackson’s Major Warren was contained rage, Russell’s bounty hunter embodied paranoia, Leigh, the prisoner-spite, Parks’ O.B.-loyalty, and so on. Even the bit part of the female stagecoach driver, Six-Horse Judy, was pure bouncy happiness. The writer took a large dose of negative emotions, sprinkled a few positive ones in and stirred it long enough for the explosive conclusion. Artful.

So imagine the characters in your work. Is there one emotion that you can ascribe to them? Of course, literary characters are never just one passion. They should be complex and changing, giving us a rainbow of reactions. Yet, what if you could place one dominant feeling or even philosophy on your character, what would it be?

Is it the emotion you want them to have? If not, then you probably need to back up a bit in the story and examine their motivation. What drives your character into action? Is it powerful enough? Remember that the people in great stories are not nice, normal, everyday folks. They are larger than life with greater problems and deeper emotional relationships. For that, you have to dig deeper inside yourself and be prepared to push boundaries, both yours and your character’s

As ever, happy writing!